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Monday, May 23, 2022

Smriti Irani: ‘Earlier there were monologues, now there is a voice talking back’

At the recent e.Adda, Union Minister for Women and Child Development, Smriti Irani spoke on the Bill to raise the legal age of marriage for women in India, polarisation in society and turning author with Lal Salaam

By: Express News Service |
Updated: January 18, 2022 2:19:24 pm
Listing the challenges before the district, she talked of health, nutrition, education, infrastructure and opportunities in fields like agriculture, skill development and financial inclusion.

At the recent e.Adda, Union Minister for Women and Child Development, Smriti Irani spoke on the Bill to raise the legal age of marriage for women in India, polarisation in society and turning author with Lal Salaam.

On her UP experience and the political situation in the state

I think those who are in the know of the politics and the mechanisms of how socially UP has evolved over the years, can ascertain for you a BJP victory in the forthcoming Assembly elections. My grandfather is from Moradabad, so my memories from the state are plenty. However, my political memories are also distinct. I’ve had the privilege of serving the Lok Sabha constituency of Amethi. I contested from Amethi in 2014 with just 20 to 25 days to contest. The BJP had never clocked more than 30,000 votes. But in those 20-25 days, our transition was from 30,000 votes to three lakh votes. For me, it meant as though there were people waiting for change. I’m grateful that my party considered me again as a candidate from Amethi, and we could bring victory to the party there.

On escalating polarisation in the campaign in UP.

I don’t know why you do not see polarisation when the Samajwadi Party leader speaks about seeing Lord Krishna in his dreams. Why you don’t see polarisation when you have Mrs Vadra go and pay respects at a mosque. I don’t see why you don’t see polarisation when Mr Gandhi wears a janeu over his coat. Why is the taunt of polarisation or the question posed only to a BJP leader? The foundation on which the UP election is being fought is the issue of development.

On whether polarisation could drown out other issues

I don’t think anything will deflect from the issue of development. Recently, the chief minister was in my constituency and we spoke about infrastructure, which was never built in a constituency which saw the Gandhi family for 50 years. The family had befriended every political organisation in UP — Samajwadi Party and BSP were extremely close to the Gandhi family and they were part of a coalition government. However, to keep the fruits of development away from people is something which is a matter of conversation among citizens. I don’t think you can deny that this election is as much about development as it is about the bad legacy of governance with regards to the Samajwadi Party or the Congress Party.

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On political parties increasingly seeing women as a vote bank

Women as vote banks have been considered only by those who have suddenly discovered that women have been more than aggressive about their political opinions, or for that matter, their vote. It’s been heartening to see a PM who put women’s agenda at the top of his priorities in terms of governance.

On whether women are voting independent of how their families do.

One cannot disregard that there have been segments in our community where women have been compelled to vote in a particular way. But I think this new India is about women understanding their right to choose political parties on the basis of development.

On raising the age of marriage for women from 18 to 21 years

When I introduced the amendment to the Prohibition of Child Marriage, when I spoke about the need for women to have equal rights as men to enter into matrimony at the age of 21, there was support from across the nation, from women across all communities and all religions. The only naysayers were the men who were in that House, making that noise. I think that when it comes to such issues, we have seen women congregate.

On criticism that the Bill proposes to criminalise a large section of marriages

I think that is one of the greatest rumours that has been spread. Those who seek to disenfranchise women with regards to the right to equality are those who are propagating this falsehood… The fact that after 75 years of our country’s independence, women and men did not get to enter matrimony at the same age, is a matter of deep regret. That is why when I went to the House to introduce that amendment, I did so believing, and I do so again today, that it is the right to equality that manifests itself through the amendment.

On the targeting of Muslim women via apps

Women, irrespective of their religion, have been denied their dignity on social-media platforms. I’m grateful that the police are investigating this issue. I am absolutely confident that those who are guilty will be punished… But do women get explicitly objectified only through one app? No. As I came to this conversation, I had a world champion, Ms (Saina) Nehwal, who was demeaned for her political position by a so-called popular actor, a man who would have known better. So I think we need to look at the issue holistically.

On whether her book Lal Salaam reflects a shift of political focus on Naxalism

I didn’t look at the book from a political prism at all and especially not with regards to the transition that you so described today between Manmohan Singh and PM Modi. I think that the book has stemmed from a political television debate a decade ago, where one of the panelists was very off-handish about paramilitary forces who met a gruesome death during a Naxal attack. For me, the rage stemmed from the nonchalance with which the lives of our paramilitary forces were spoken of.

On the increasing polarisation in society

I think now there is a voice which is talking back. Earlier, there were voices which were in monologues. I think that is what has befuddled many. There were many who thought that they are the epitome of intelligence, now they are being challenged.

Those who recognise that the starkness of the polarity you speak about can be reduced if everybody is waiting or wanting to give a listen, I think that is when conversations can begin. Celebration of a true democracy is that irrespective of ideologies, we can come together, become part of a conversation. Celebration of a democracy is when we all agree to disagree.

On how her friends outside politics view her today

It is extremely essential for me as a human being to have conversations with people from all walks of life. When I spent two terms in the Rajya Sabha, I would have equal amount of opportunity of talking to D Raja, as I would have with Rajeev, who was a Kerala politician from the Left, and with Jairam Ramesh, Mallikarjun Kharge or Anand Sharma. When we come together under the Constitution, in Parliament especially, our cause is only one and that is India. For me, it doesn’t matter what your ideology is, as long as you’re respectful in your disagreement and you’re respectful of my Constitution and my country.


Sudarshan Suchi
CEO, Save the Children, India

Given that 40 per cent of our population is the youth, can we look for a budget with a dedicated section for children? Can we expect the government to come forward with a dedicated ministry for child welfare?

What needs to be said is when we serve the cause of children, do we limit it only to the Women and Child Development department? When we talk about the protection of children, we see a partnership between the Women and Child Development Ministry and the Ministry of Home Affairs and state governments. When we look at children in the tribal belts, we work actively with the Tribal Ministry. When we look at children with disabilities, we work with the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. When we look at children from the Northeast, our engagement is strengthened with the department of DoNER. When we look at children from the health perspective, there are many flagship schemes that are now centralised in the Ministry of Health.

With regard to the budget, though the Women and Child Development Ministry has a budget that oscillates up to Rs 23,000 crore, one also needs to consider the budgets of other such ministries that equally serve the cause of children in our country.

RC Soni
India Advisor, World Economic Forum

There is a UNESCO report, a survey that says 47 million children in India drop out of senior secondary school and most of them are girls. What are you doing on this front?

I think that the numbers are to be revised given that now the Government of India gets UDISE numbers from the state governments. As far as the dropout of girls in the school system goes, there are two verticals under which this data is drawn — one under the school department, the other under the anganwadi system where the GoI now provides support to drop-out girls in the anganwadi system and that provision in fact entails that we match that data. There is a data gap of nine lakh women, which, now in collaboration with states, has been rectified. So the data may be dated as far as the UNESCO report goes. This is a 2016 report, which the MHRD did not fully support.

However, one has to agree that the transition of young women from schools to higher education institutions is still a challenge. More so, when it comes to technical and technological institutions. One of the challenges stems from the fact that more girls are not inclined towards STEM subjects because they have not been given that pronounced support in school.

Our intention needs to be to propagate the ownership of technology by more female-led enterprises. Even in terms of academic appointments, you see very few women leading institutions. As Minister of Education, I had the privilege of appointing the first- ever woman to lead the IIT council, Tessy Thomas, who’s now leading DRDO. I also ensured that most of the NITs were led by them.

Suvir Saran
Chef, Author and Express columnist

Can a woman as gracious and generous as you really be what people call conservative?

What is a conservative? The PM gave the right to medical termination of pregnancy up to 24 weeks for women. This is an issue that is pronounced in the US as a liberal issue. There was no structured administrative protocol for surrogacy in our country. It is the Modi government that brought about legislation that protects the rights of women, children and families under the aegis of surrogacy. It is the PM who, as part of a nationalist government, enhanced maternity leave to 26 weeks. These issues are normally presumed to be liberal issues. So how do I look at myself? I look at myself as a humanist and a nationalist.

Pankaj Chadha
CEO, Jyoti Steel

Considering what you’ve stated about the development progress in UP, is there a need in the light of the third wave to have such an overdrive in the UP election by the BJP?

Even the issues that I have flagged today, some may say that I have been on an overdrive talking about my government’s achievements. If it is my desire to express the good work done, then the democratic setup that we are a part of affords us that right. I understand that the other side has not done much and, hence, cannot speak much on issues of deadlock, but that is a cause of concern limited to them. In so far as my party goes, I’m extremely proud that my party could do so much work that we speak so much about it.

Monal Kabra
Founder, Solar Desk

How did you balance children and a demanding career? What are the initiatives you would have taken then and now for better childcare infrastructure?

I worked as a professional when there was a Congress government at the Centre and had no hopes of receiving any support. This government has pronounced 26 weeks of maternity leave. The Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana provides for loss of wages when a woman needs to get inoculated during pregnancy. Institutional deliveries have gone up. The need to mandate a creche at work places is being pronounced by this government. The labour codes that were simplified speak for these kind of rights. Access to good transport systems under the Nirbhaya Fund have been supported by the GoI. We have women helpdesks across all police stations. On how did I manage between children and a job, that question itself smacks of gender disbalance.

Dr Antony Kollannur
Independent Monitor, National Health Mission, Government of India

There is no system for psychosocial stimulation for 0-3 years of age in ICDS. What is your plan for the same?

The Ministry, in collaboration with the Ministry of Education, is looking at a new module under early childhood education, which is a need in the anganwadi system. We are collaborating with the NCERT. We’ve also requested stakeholders to give their inputs. When you talk about psychosocial counselling, especially for children, in collaboration with NIMHANS, a year ago we started a counselling process across all childcare institutions, ensuring that duty bearers in such institutions have access to psychosocial counselling. Under the project called SAMVAD, we have given support to over one lakh such cases under the aegis of NIMHANS. We are hoping to expand these services.



Sony and Zee merger. Good or bad for content creators?
I would stay out of the realm because I’m in a position where I’m governing certain aspects. I think content creators are most supported when there is democratisation of means.

HRD and Women and Child Development, which is your favourite?


Tulsi in Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi or Sita in Ramayan, which is your most cherished role?

Both. In Ramayan, I had the opportunity of working with BR Chopra, Yash Chopra and Ravi Chopra.

The one lesson India’s favourite bahu will give to another?

Make sure that you live happily and give equal respect to your partner; make sure that you prosper.

What is something that you are proud of doing and that you feel was unfinished business or wasn’t done the way you wanted?

I live a life of no regrets. As far as achievements, I have beautiful kids and for me, they are the hallmark of my success.

Achievement and regret as a mother?

No regrets. As for achievements, I have two children who have turned out to be amazing human beings.

Achievement and regret as an actor?

None. I have done television, theatre and films. So there isn’t a realm, in terms of the media business, that I’ve not been a part of, including reporting for elections for Zee. I worked for Jain TV as well.

The one achievement closest to your heart as a politician.

The PM was more than kind to trust our capacities in textiles. A country which never manufactured a single piece of PPE suit, we managed, from March to May, to become the world’s second-largest exporters in PPE.

You did not mention Amethi in this.

Amethi for me is not mere politics; it’s a life process. I look at it as a journey with the people I care about. I look at it as a part of my personal journey.

Anything you would like to redo or you failed in during your political career?

I think in totality we are people who are an assimilation of our successes and failures. I’m here today irrespective of my failures and my successes.

Eminent guests who participated in the e.Adda include Mannika Chopra, Managing Editor, Council for Social Development; Jaya Jaitly, Founder and President, Dastkari Haat Samiti; Kirit Parikh, Chairman, IRADe; Krishan Kant Rathi, MD, First Bridge Fund Managers; Atul Choksey, Chairman, Apcotex Industries; Poonam Dabas, Executive Editor, Centre for Media and Strategic Studies; Ajai Kumar, Director, Indiabulls AMC; Pankaj Satija, MD, Tata Steel Mining; Urvashi Butalia, Director, Zubaan Books; K Sudarshan, Managing Director, EMA Partners India; Sevanti Ninan, Columnist, The Telegraph India; Meenakshi Gopinath, Chairperson, Centre for Policy Research; Vivek Jain, Managing Director, DCW; Mridul Shah, Managing Director, Aamara Capital

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